'Barefoot' Running: Salvation, or Mirage?

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In response to this plaintive request for advice on Achilles tendon problems, many useful suggestions have arrived. Rather, one-by-one they are useful, erudite, and sincere. Yet collectively they more or less cancel out, since equal numbers say: barefoot is the way to go; barefoot is dangerous; rely on massage; don't trust massage; just do stretches; and "give up."

Toward the end of adding to the store of public knowledge, herewith two of the more constructive messages (more to follow later). The first is from Clynton Taylor of northern California. After the jump, one from Jake Seliger of Arizona. Taylor writes:

Thanks for writing about your experience with forefoot running and your recent trial of Vibram Five Fingers. It's a very good thing you didn't change your running style with the advent of all the "fancy" new running shoes in the subsequent decades!

I discovered the benefits of barefoot running (or in barefoot-like shoes) myself while recovering from back surgery (for a herniated disc that got worse the more I ran in my huge, thick, supportive Asics). Thanks to the barefoot form, I was able to run for an hour before I could sit for an hour! The faster cadence along with forefoot strike and bent knees kept my back nice and safe (and a more fit core, for sure).

I wanted to share my learnings and help others run better, without pain, so I wrote several blog posts. One that has helped many people transition to a barefoot form is called 12 Step Program to Run Barefoot. I share it with you as it might help you ramp up slowly and get over your Achilles tendinitis. It also might be helpful for your readers.

Seliger writes:

I've been wearing Vibram Five Fingers for about four months, so I read your post with particular interest. A few other notes:

- The stitching near my right big toe came apart. When I called the Running Shop in Tucson, where I bought them, the guy on the phone said that the same thing had happened to many people. Fortunately, my girlfriend is a med student and sews a tight surgery stitch, so mine have been repaired courtesy of her...

- A lot of sizes / colors are unavailable at the moment. I was looking for a second pair (for walking) in a Men's 44, but Vibram's website is out:  . So is the Running Shop. So is REI. [JF: I found size 46 in stock at Hudson Trail Outfitters in DC.]

- You should emphasize this point to your readers: don't start with normal running distances if you're used to conventional shoes. The first day I ran, half a mile was easy and I was tempted to go further. The next morning, my calves still ached terribly, and I was glad to have stopped early. It took me about three months to acclimate. [I was able to go, within a week, from half a mile to 1.5 miles without problems, versus a pre-Achilles injury norm of 4 miles -- but now I have some time off while traveling.]

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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